Bold prognostications from recruits are hardly new. We're all familiar with Ryan Perrilloux and his now infamous "four Heismans" declaration, but Perrilloux is hardly the exception here. Perrilloux's comments were not well received, likely due to his preceding reputation as an arrogant, undisciplined high school superstar. In fact, you can notice the starkly differently reaction when Leonard Fournette declared his goals for his freshman season included winning the Heisman and a National Championship. Few batted an eye at the comment, much less heaped criticism upon him.
Is it brash, arrogant and short-sighted? Well, maybe. But I also can't fault confidence. Confidence is key to most any success, in any field, much less athletics. So rather than moral nitpicking, let's consider what exactly it would take for Leonard Fournette to actually capture a Heisman trophy in 2014.
Heisman Quality Running Backs
This century, only one running back has claimed the trophy, Mark Ingram in 2009. Only six running backs in that span have even finished in the top five of the voting: Ingram, Toby Gerhart (2009), LaMichael James (2010), Trent Richardson (2011), Montee Ball (2011) and Andre Williams (2013).
This sampling gives us a good picture of the state of modern football. Trends vacillate, but right now the spread-oriented QB is the popular pick for the trophy, while workhorse running backs are falling back a bit. If we rewound a bit to the early 2000s, a few more running backs would be incorporated, but the game has shifted from even then, both in style and perception. Backs like Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden and Reggie Bush were either runners-up or winners. But to keep our focus on the most recent data, let's take a look at what the average Heisman worthy performance of a running back looked like since 2009.
309 carries, 1,840 yards, 5.97 yards per carry, 23 rushing TDs, 19 receptions, 224 receiving yards and 2.5 receiving TDs
What these numbers tell us are that a Heisman-candidate running back not only needs to be super productive, he needs a heavy workload. 330 offensive touches is an exceptional number, one that signifies having an offense built around a particular player. You can just take a quick look at the quarterbacks these backs played with to get an idea of how unremarkable their seasons were. Fine players, sure, but they were essentially role players in the running back's show.
LSU Lead Backs
Despite a history dotted with great running back play, few LSU runners have ascended to the Heisman trophy quality level in this, or any other, era. The last running back to even finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting was Charles Alexander in 1978. The only LSU running back to ever win the award, and the only LSU player for that matter, is Billy Cannon in 1959. Those are players who obviously played in a distinctly different era than today.
In the Miles' era, we've seen a clear effort at carry distribution. The notion that LSU is a "running back by committee" offense isn't necessarily representative of the truth. In most seasons under Miles there is a clear number one back, who is buttressed with a second, third, sometimes even fourth option that sees a heavy number of carries. In nine seasons under Miles, we've seen 34 different running back seasons of 40+ carries. You may think 40 is a relatively insignificant number, but that's anywhere from 10-12% of a season's given carries allotted to the running backs. Even if you raise the bar a bit. 26 running back seasons of 50+ carries. 24 running back seasons of 60+ carries (not including one of 59). Essentially 2.5 backs a year will rush the ball over 60 times in a given LSU season under Miles. That's about five carries a game. Not much, sure, but sure beats watching.
The distribution of carries looks like this:
This gives a visual of how the carries are typically distributed during the Miles era. On average, the leading back will absorb 44 percent of the team's total running back carries. The top three backs, on average, absorb about 80 percent of the team's total running back carries. In the Miles era, the only season that would truly be representative of a "running back by committee" would be 2006 where the carries were near evenly distributed across five different backs.
In these nine seasons, LSU backs are averaging roughly 405 carries a season. Again, keep in mind these are only running back carries. What QBs and receivers do here is insignificant as we're trying to track exactly how a running back performs under Les Miles. On sheer averages alone, 44 percent of 405 carries would be just 178 carries, a number far short of the pre-established 309-carry mark for a Heisman-level RB. By that token alone, we're already leaning toward this not being a possibility.
But let's dig a little deeper. The highest number of RB carries for a back under Miles is 249 by Ridley in 2010. Still short of the 309 benchmark, but less so. Fournette is known for his well-rounded game, could he perhaps supplement 250 carries with enough catches to be a top flight Heisman contender?
So let's just spit ball some numbers here for fun. Let's say he's as good as advertised and posts a 6.9 yard average on the ground and 10.1 per catch as a receiver. These are Hill's rates from last year. We know he needs to get more catches to make up ground since he'll top out at 250 carries, so we'll say 30 catches. Even then his numbers look like this:
1,725 rushing yards + 303 receiving yards = 2,028 total yards
2,028 is a sensational number... that still falls short of the average Heisman worthy RB season. And this doesn't even consider touchdowns. For the record, Adrian Peterson rushed for 1,928 yards his freshman season, so it's not entirely unheard of. Of course he also carried the rock 339 times.
There's one last thing we could toss in that could give Fournette a potential edge. What about as a returner? Of the backs that became Heisman candidates, only Reggie Bush offered anything of significance as a returner (fittingly he's one of the only two to win in the past decade), but given the restrictions the LSU offense will place on Fournette's overall workload, he would need to add return bullets to his résumé. Returning is not something discussed in regards to Fournette's future, but it's a spot we've used backs before and we can't forget that our top returner from 2013 will not be back in 2014. If Fournette were able to toss in something slightly less than OBJ's return numbers from last season, suddenly we're talking about a Heisman, candidate, right?
Well then, can it happen?
Looking at the numbers, it's hard to see this as a possibility in even the most optimistic of scenarios, this is not even considering the fact that LSU returns two established, talented runners. Even for a guy who does things that defy reason (seriously, watch that video), Fournette would quite literally have to break history at both a school and national level. No true freshman has ever won the Heisman (though the further we get away from it the more you wonder how the hell Adrian Peterson didn't). No back under Miles has reached the type of production minimums that being a Heisman quality back requires. By those standards alone it's hard to imagine Fournette even standing a chance to become a finalist, much less win the Heisman in 2014.
But hell, if anyone can do it, it's probably Leonard Fournette.